A tree surgeon is a horticultural maintenance engineer who is responsible for felling trees, pruning branches and shrubs, planting, replanting, splitting logs and hedge-cutting. Tree surgery is one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, with a high potential for incident due to the heights involved and the powered machinery which must be used to do the job. However, those who become involved with the profession tend to find the role very exciting and continue with it as a long-term career.
Being a tree surgeon suits those who hanker after an outdoor lifestyle; the candidate must be prepared to work outdoors in all conditions, and this forms a large part of the appeal in many cases. It is hard, physical work, and keeps the candidate in good physical condition. Hot summer days can often be worse than the cold winter mornings! A good tree surgeon is both an experienced climber and a skilled power-tool technician, and needs to be able to use complicated and dangerous equipment in an elevated and precarious position. It is certainly one of the truly challenging outdoor jobs.
The starting salary for an unskilled junior who wishes to join an established company without industry qualifications is £11,500, rising to £14,500 after the first two years experience. After three years experience, and accreditation from the Arboricultural Association (at diploma level), the salary can rise to between £18,500 and £20,500, although this can reach £30,000 depending on arw and size of the business.
Often a tree surgeon will operate as a sole trader or small partnership, and fees are based on a day rate. This can range from £60 a day up to £135 per day, depending on experience and demand. It tends to be a career choice for those who crave thrills and outdoor air, as opposed to fabulous remuneration or an easy life.
- Listen to customer requirements for site work and prepare on-site or telephone quotation.
- Arrive at site on the agreed day and commence work at the pre-agreed time.
- Complete the necessary felling, pruning, planting, replanting, log removal and hedge work.
- Tidy site on completion and fulfil removal of waste product from customer’s site.
- Invoice for work and appraise future customer work requirements.
- Ensure all insurance documents for personal injury and public liability are valid.
It is possible to enter the profession as an unskilled trainee with no academic qualifications, and candidates taking this route need to understand that remuneration is quite poor. However, the on-site experience gained from going out with an experienced tree surgeon will stand the candidate in good stead. Also, there are various different certifications and accreditation certificates which can be studied for and achieved, supported by the ongoing work experience. The Arboricultural Association website is the best place to start. It pays to have a pre-defined idea as to the specialisations the candidate wishes to study, to support their rapid career development.
- Be proficient with power tools and other powered equipment.
- Understanding of the dangers and complexities involved with the various aspects of work.
- Be familiar with how best to ensure the safety of all personnel, and of the customer, their family and their staff.
- To be able to complete work in a timely and professional manner.
- Have a desire to push towards further academic professional advancement.
Logging routinely figures in surveys as the second most dangerous job in the world, behind deep sea fishing; certain elements of the tree surgeon’s occupation fall into the same category of risk as logging. This is an extremely dangerous job, with constant threats to health and safety, not just from the use of power tools or falling, but also long term health risks from heavy lifting and repeated twisting movements. Yet, a healthy individual will settle into the rigours of the daily job and become much fitter as a result.
It is worth noting that for candidates who wish to enter the profession as self-employed business owners, insurance premiums for personal injury and public liability risks are extremely high; this needs to be factored into operating costs when preparing an initial business plan. Juxtaposed with this high level of risk, there is the converse appeal of being able to work outside in nice weather (on occasion), and breathing clean air all day. Contrast this to the hum-drum, grey existence of many an office job and the appeal for the tree surgeon becomes more tangible.
Many candidates who join with zero qualifications do so between the ages of 18 and 25. If the candidate does not wish to study at college before commencing full-time employment, then the younger the better in terms of starting age, as this will allow for quickly developing the skills needed to progress with one’s career in the longer term. After a period of four to five years, candidates who are working for established tree surgery firms should then have a skill set which will enable them to set up their own business, even if their learning process is not yet fully complete.
Although Woodland Solutions UK and Peter Jackson Developments are examples of companies that are larger arboricultural operations, most tend to be entrepreneurial or family-run in nature, and so remain quite small. In the case of dealing with larger customer sites such as hospitals and schools, the contract for the groundwork and maintenance will normally be let as a ‘comprehensive services’ package, and so these contractors (such as the vast Sodexo Corporation) are beyond the scope of this article.
Also known as…
- Tree climber
- Landscape gardener
- Timber merchant
- Wood yard operator
- Park ranger
What’s it really like?
Tom Fellows is a tree surgeon based in Brighton, and owns Arborcura, a successful and well- established tree felling and tree care business.
What made you decide to choose to get into this sort of career?
There were many contributing factors. I’d always loved climbing trees as a boy, I had an interest in horticulture, I loved working outdoors (I was already a gardener, I loved the physical challenge and demands and after trying out a 3 day climbing course at Merrist Wood college, I fell in love with tree climbing, and I knew it was the job for me.
Do you have a standard day or a standard type of `exercise’?
Not really. Each day tends to be at a different location, and the tasks vary a fair bit, although we will be either felling, pruning, planting, splitting logs or hedge-cutting.
What is the most common type of problem/call-out/enquiry you must attend to?
The most common problem is someone whose tree has outgrown its position in the garden and either needs it to be removed or pruned, so as to make it smaller (usually to allow in more light).
What do you like most about the job?
There isn’t one aspect I like over everything else. I love climbing, talking about plants with customers, the fact there is a new job every day, camaraderie with the guys, solving problems and keeping extremely fit.
What do you like least about the job?
Bad weather, and the fact that tree climbing is incredibly damaging to the body if you’re not careful.
What are the key responsibilities?
Safety, safety, safety. Tree health is also crucial, as well as public awareness; I run the company so I’m responsible for everything. A tree surgeon will generally be responsible for maintaining all of his kit (climbing ropes and harness, chainsaws, pruning gear), maintenance of truck and wood chipper (machinery used to process branches into woodchip), liaising with the public, liaising with the local authority on tree protection matters, undertaking safe and modern tree work.
What about academic requirements? Any formal demands, eg A Levels?
You can enter the industry at any level. Most guys get into tree surgery in their late teens/early twenties with no qualifications, and either learn whilst on the job, or combine an ARB course with a work placement. There are many qualifications to attain within the industry from basic tree climbing certificates right up to degree and beyond. You need to be clear about exactly what it is that you are interested in.
Who is the longest serving member in your team/division?
Me, for 13 years.
What is the starting salary and how does this increase over time with promotion?
It’s not that straightforward, as the salary range will depend on the employer. A novice climber might be able to earn £60-£100 per day and obviously command more money with more experience. An average daily rate for an average climber would be £80-£130 depending on the location, and really top climbers can look for £130+ per day. It’s a very inexact science, and very underpaid considering the demands and dangers!
If you left this position, what else would you consider/prefer doing?
I’d remain in the arboricultural industry, maybe as a consultant or teacher.
What advice do you have for someone who is looking to get into this as a career?
Get some work experience with a local tree surgeon so you can see what sort of work we do (don’t expect too much money, as it is a skilled yet dangerous job, and as a novice, you may be more of a hindrance than a help). Talk to tree surgeons and groundspeople to get ideas about training, career possibilities and to find out if this is the sort of work for you. Be realistic. This is hard, dangerous work; it’s extremely demanding physically, and tree climbing requires courage and clear thinking in stressful situations.
What are the most important qualities an applicant should possess?
Punctuality, reliability, being a good listener, honesty, being very hardworking, having a willingness to learn and to take on constructive criticism. And guts!
Any closing comments/thoughts?
For many people, myself included, this is the best job in the world, but always remember that it takes its toll on your body. Expect aches, pains, cuts, scratches, sprains and broken bones. Also, there is a long term risk of injuries to arms, legs and back. Your hearing may also be affected due to the loud machinery used. Be good to your body and you’ll have a very enviable job.